AUDIE CORNISH, host:
A million and a half Americans live in nursing homes. Kenneth Dupin spends a lot of time visiting some of them. He's the pastor at Salem Wesleyan Church in South Central Virginia, and he noticed another statistic about elderly nursing home residents.
Mr. KENNETH DUPIN (Reverend, Salem Wesleyan Church): Sad to say that 17 percent of all the people in nursing homes never have a visitor.
CORNISH: Dupin says out of all the elderly people he's visited over the years, one story has stayed with him: a woman in his congregation named Katie, who regaled him with tales of Washington high society in the 1950s. She treasured her house full of memorabilia, but then she had to move to a nursing home.
Mr. DUPIN: And I went to see Katie and as soon as I walked in the room, she started crying. And I went over to her and she pulled me down to where I could hear her, and she said, please take me home.
CORNISH: But Katie couldn't go home. Her family had sold her house. She later died, but her memory remained with Dupin. And it got him thinking: What if there was a way to keep people like Katie close to their families? So Dupin came up with the idea for what he calls the MEDCottage, although you may have heard it referred to in the news as a granny pod.
It's basically a mini mobile home that becomes a spare room in the backyard for Grandma or Grandpa. You'll be able to rent one for around $2,000 a month.
The idea is sprouting in several states across the country - nowhere more than Virginia, where the state government changed zoning laws this summer to clear the way for these high-tech hideaways that will go to market early next year.
This week, I went down to the factory in Virginia where MEDCottages are made.
So Ken, tell us, what are we looking at here?
Mr. DUPIN: This is the MEDCottage, and it is a small building that is 12 feet wide and 24 feet long, and it is 14 feet high.
CORNISH: It's painted a lovely shade of taupe.
Mr. DUPIN: It is. It is.
CORNISH: And it looks pretty cozy, so let's head back...
Mr. DUPIN: Okay.
CORNISH: ...let's head inside.
Inside, the MEDCottage looks kind of like a nice hotel suite - kitchen, bathroom - but with lace curtains, silver-framed pictures of model-cute grandchildren, and a pink afghan folded at the foot of the bed. Then there are the security cameras at the front door and all along the floor.
Mr. DUPIN: This is something that we call FeetSweep. And FeetSweep is a camera system that is about 12 inches off the floor, and it only monitors the floor, though, up about 12 inches, so that the person in here, the only thing that you see is their feet. And if they would fall, though, and they'd be lying on the floor, you would be aware that they had fallen.
CORNISH: There's a high-tech air-filtering system, metal tracks on the ceiling that allow for a lift that can carry a person from room to room, a heart rate monitor and scale that send information to a web server. That means you can check on whether Mom took her medicine from your laptop or a phone app.
Despite the "Truman Show" setup, Dupin says the MEDCottage is actually designed to extend the independence of people who would otherwise end up in nursing homes.
Mr. DUPIN: Let's say that your mother was in the hospital and her insurance was running out, and she needed some kind of continuous care - at least monitoring and that kind of thing - you would either purchase or you would order one of these from a leasing company. And it would actually be placed on your property, physically.
And then, much like an RV, you would plug it into the house, through the water, the electric system, and basically you would set up housekeeping for them in this, what we call a medical environment. But the family would have to participate in that care.
And what happens is when the family members participate, the kids are running in and out of the little cottage, the quality of life and even the extension of life - it just changes the dynamic of that completely.
CORNISH: So who is this aimed at?
Mr. DUPIN: I always think about my own parents. And my parents are in their late 70s. They're still very mobile. They're very able to take care of themselves presently. But in my mind, when I speak about "they", that's who "they" is. is.
CORNISH: At the same time, I look at this and I think of the nickname that I've read, which is a granny pod - sort of nicknamed off of these POD storage units that people throw in their backyards and in their driveways.
Mr. DUPIN: Right.
CORNISH: It's a little bit disconcerting to think of throwing my loved one into a box in the backyard.
Mr. DUPIN: Well, one of the things I've learned is you do not get to pick your nickname. I mean, it just evolves. You know, it just comes about. We like to think of this as a room that is not connected. And somehow, that space there provides a level of independence that is very important to Americans. And really, this is designed with Americans in mind, very much. All the technology and the way that we do things and the space that we need and how we design that space, it's very American.
CORNISH: So American in that your elderly parents are still somewhere else, or American in that your elderly parents or loved ones want to be more independent than being in your house?
Mr. DUPIN: Probably both of those, in reality.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUPIN: This is one of those studies that we really can never publicly say. But we don't want them in our house, nor do they want to be in our house. But still - yet proximity is everything, relative to how much interaction there is. And as far as the American version, the technology is what makes it so American.
In other words, it's who we are as a people, to constantly use technology to facilitate responsibilities and to elevate our capability to do them. That is so American.
CORNISH: Do you see either yourself or your parents in a MEDCottage?
Mr. DUPIN: Well, my own parents happen to be in a situation where economically, it will never be an issue to them. But obviously, as I'm thinking about my life, then I'll probably be in the backyard of one of my kids.
CORNISH: Kenneth Dupin, inventor of the MEDCottage and CEO of N2Care. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Mr. DUPIN: Thank you, Audie. Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.
CORNISH: Next week, NPR's Jennifer Ludden will report more on caring for the elderly. Listen for the start of her series, "Aging at Home," Monday on MORNING EDITION.
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